COLUMBIA | First Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said them. Then junior guard Kim English said them. Then junior guard Marcus Denmon and finally junior forward Laurence Bowers.
They all said the right things. Went over the top to say the civil things, the things that would not tinge the sudden departure of Missouri basketball coach Mike Anderson to the University of Arkansas with simple venom.
But in the end, the three players — who as seniors next season will wind up playing with a new coach — acknowledged how much that punch in their gut hurt.
“Deep down inside you’re mad,” Bowers said, “and really disappointed. Why us?”
Bowers caught himself, reverting to the original script, saying: “He was happy. You always want someone to be happy. You do what’s best for you. Going to Arkansas was what’s best for Coach Anderson.
“Hopefully we’ll get someone in here that’s really good and our senior leadership will carry us to the promised land.
“Coach Anderson used to always stress about us winning a national championship. We still plan on winning that national championship although he’s at Arkansas.”
Denmon touched on the anger, passed over it, then noted that as a kid out of Kansas City, he was brought up to do one thing on the basketball court.
“I play for Missouri,” Denmon said.
Kim English, from Baltimore, talked about the pride he has in the adoptive state he has grown to revere. And then addressed the statement Anderson made about wanting to retire at Missouri before reversing field to return to the school where he spent 17 years as an assistant coach under Nolan Richardson.
“I think we’ll reconcile it by winning,” English said.
Phil Pressey, a freshman guard and the son of Anderson’s former college roommate Paul Pressey, was not at the Wednesday night news conference with Alden and his three teammates, but was later asked by KOMU-TV if he’d follow Anderson to Arkansas.
“I don’t know, man,” he said.
Nowhere to be found was Anderson, stealing away from Mizzou Arena after a 7 p.m. team meeting where he finally confirmed what his players already knew, and what Anderson had promised them he would tell them before anyone else.
Anderson flew into Columbia late Wednesday afternoon after two days spent in Oklahoma attending the funeral of a close friend and thinking of his future at Arkansas. A cadre of reporters was waiting at Columbia Regional Airport, but airport officials went out of their way to disguise Anderson’s arrival on the tarmac.
Reporters, standing outside a fence near the runway, saw a small airplane land but were told to move back and two airport vehicles pulled up near the airplane, blocking the view of those emerging from it and getting into a waiting car.
Anderson’s only words came in Arkansas’ announcement, which was released at the same time Anderson was talking to the MU players.
“I am extremely excited to once again be a part of this special university and Razorback athletics,” he said in the statement. “With the continued passionate support of all Razorback fans, I am confident that we will have the opportunity to succeed on and off the court and continue to build on the University of Arkansas’ championship tradition.”
While Anderson first asked permission to talk with Arkansas on Tuesday night, Alden said it was not until 6:45 p.m. Wednesday that Anderson told Alden he was leaving.
This was 48 hours after Denmon said he met with Anderson and asked him if the rumors and speculation he was hearing was true. Anderson told Denmon the decision would be hard. But Denmon could not have imagined what Wednesday night would feel like.
Anderson was making $1.55 million a season but an offer for a raise to $2 million per year and two additional years to his current seven-year contract reached fruition a week ago after five months of discussions.
Reports indicated Arkansas was offering only $200,000 more a year to hire Anderson. But by the time he made his decision, the MU offer, Alden said, had been withdrawn, a condition to Anderson being allowed to talk to Arkansas. Anderson also has to pay a $550,000 penalty for leaving.
Outside of the small room at Mizzou Arena on Wednesday night, reaction was equal parts understanding, anger and disillusionment on the part of MU boosters.
“We really wanted to keep him,” said Dennis Harper, the man who started the familiar and iconic Harpo’s franchise in Columbia. “We tried hard. In salary we upped the ante. But he’s an Arkansas guy and you can’t blame him.”
Paul Blackman, a longtime Missouri fan and booster from Kansas City, felt ultimately that he had misjudged Anderson.
“I always thought he was an honorable guy,” Blackman said, “but apparently not.”